Virtually every novel you’ve ever read is a historical novel. The only exceptions I can think of are speculative or future-set science fiction, or romping through the woods and fields with anthropomorphic animals (and even then, there’s Animal Farm). Dickens and Defoe, Melville and Marquez, Jameses prefaced or suffixed with Henry or James, all are historical writers regardless of whether or not they intended it at the time.
It’s all about the reader’s perspective and not the writer’s. Even if the author was faithfully recording the scene outside his window, describing in aching detail the lunch menu of that little café just down the street – you know, the one with the Campari umbrellas – that scene and everyone in it is either long since or soon to be dead and that café was re-developed into office space years and years ago. Squint all you like, feel the cobblestones through thin-soled shoes, I don’t care what you do, but you are just not going to experience David Copperfield’s London in 2017; horse-drawn carriages were not outfitted with car horns and the only things to be found Underground were graves and wine cellars, not Tube stations.
The skills of a crack novelist must be many – dialogue, character, plot, you know the drill – however the one we’re most concerned with here and now is that of the atmosphere, the mise en scène, the place and time of a work of fiction. How well does the writer accomplish the task of creating a vivid word picture that can form itself into a mindscape that the reader’s imagination can wander around in? Frankly any fool can create a great character, all it takes are wit, physicality and a secret. Creating a world for that character to live in though, ah now there’s a tricky business. After all, it took God himself nearly a week to pull that one off.
Even though by this definition all novels set within a time previous to the reader’s own are historical novels, there is no point in making mock-naive protest against the truth that there are intentionally written historical novels and there’s lots of them. The writer looks back in time, finds or creates from whole cloth an encompassing story, does the research and gets to work pounding on the keyboard. At their best, historical novels emerge resembling E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, in my view the peak of the genre. While it is not absolutely necessary to have famous people wandering around the pages, let’s face it that’s a great part of the fun; like sitting in a bar and spotting Nicole Kidman across the room, making an ordinary evening into a relishable anecdote.
The art of the matter is a delicate balance. Can the author fit the “famous names in famous places” into a story without the former overwhelming the latter? Doctorow managed to keep Coalhouse Walker in the leading position even while Harry Houdini, Henry Ford and Emma Goldman are popping up like alligators on a golf course.
This leads us to Eva Stachniak’s recently published fifth book, The Chosen Maiden (Doubleday Canada). Save for her first novel, 2000’s Necessary Lies, the rest have been historical novels. I came onboard as a Stachniak appreciator with The Winter Palace and then Empress of the Night, her two volumes on the life of Catherine the Great. The Chosen Maiden takes us back to the Russian court, but only tangentially. For this is the story, told in the first person, of Bronislava (Bronia) Nijinska.
Perhaps you may have heard of the more famous Nijinsky, the ballet dancer and not the race horse. Vaslav Nijinsky is still the dancer to whom the more modern Rudolf Nureyev or Mikhail Baryshnikov are compared, even though Nijinsky’s career was depressingly short, barely a decade, before he spent the last 30 years of life in various stages of schizophrenia. Don’t bother looking him up on YouTube as you won’t find anything. The impresario Sergei Diaghilev for whom Nijinsky created and danced his greatest choreography, never allowed any of those ballets to be filmed. Diaghilev felt that the film cameras of the period wrapped around the First World War were insufficient to capture the scope and art of the Ballet Russes and frankly he wasn’t wrong.
Of course I have just imitated exactly what the life of Bronia was. As Vaslav’s sister she was his confidante (until his rather unfortunate marriage), dance partner, and a formidable dancer, teacher and long-time choreographer in her own right. But when you’re Nijinsky’s sister, that is always going to be the first thing anyone says about you.
Mind you, as Stachniak makes clear, Bronia was not the Salieri to her brother’s Mozart. Particularly after the loss of their elder brother Stanislav (who also descended into madness following a childhood brain injury) and their dancer father leaving their mother/Mamusia, the remaining two siblings and their mother were properly loving and supportive, bound by blood and Polish-Russian heritage as much as they were bound by barre and ballet. Bronia is dazzled by her brother, worried by her brother, sometimes frustrated by her brother, gains entry into the Ballet Russes thanks to her brother, yet the relationship never descends into the melodramatic griping of jealousy.
From what I have read about Bronia Nijinska beyond The Chosen Maiden – rare occasion for me, I actually did some independent research before writing this review – Eva Stachniak presents an historically accurate depiction of her lead character. That would have made for a difficult assignment because Bronia was one tough woman. She was not given to wild partying, multiple affairs or plotting against rivals, any or all of which make a person a juicy subject for fictional biography. Rather, she is something less purely dramatic, yet ever so much more interesting: a true professional woman completely dedicated to her artistic vision.
Life in the arts is a hard and rocky field to sow. I would argue that life in a classical art such as ballet is even more difficult as the niche of potential audience is smaller than, say, musical comedy, as well as being by nature conservative in its taste for experimental works. Even Diaghilev had to dig out the Greatest Hits package regularly in order to pay the bills. In particular though, life in a classic art for a woman with a specific vision is a field as hard as pavement. And yet, Bronia survives and succeeds despite changes of taste, the Revolution that destroys reputations, wars, financial setbacks, death of a child, and the winds of horror leading into the Second World War.
I thoroughly enjoyed Eva Stachniak’s two novels on Catherine the Great. The Chosen Maiden surpasses those. This is a writer in full and complete control of her material, knowing just how much of a ballet to describe in just enough detail and which ballets are worthy of description. Perhaps writing in the voice of an emotionally reserved character such as Bronia helped. In any case, I was appreciative of the result.
Stachniak never lets Vaslav or Diaghilev, Pavlova or Stravinsky shove her lead off the stage. They all and others are presented as no more and no less crucial than Mamusia, or Bronia’s children, or her students or husbands. The Chosen Maiden is in perfect balance, rather fitting giving its subject.
There is one other subtle element to The Chosen Maiden that I point out here because I love it when a writer implies a message in the background instead of slugging the reader in the face. That element is the linking narration between the novel’s sections, all of which are spoken by Bronia during a voyage to New York just as World War Two is beginning. Do you see why that is so perfect? What is a great ship on an ocean but a pause between realities, a stateless place between nations of violence and a desired port of peace? What is our ability to survive those Shakespearean slings and arrows of outrageous fortune based upon but finding our ships, taking stock, pressing on, in life’s journey that always changes, never stops, never telling us what the next music will be. But whatever that music is, we shall create our own dance that will suit it well. ◊
Hubert O’Hearn is a writer/editor born in Canada and currently living in Ireland. Author of four books, as a reviewer he has previously been on the editorial staff of Winnipeg Review, San Francisco Book Review, Le Herald de Paris et Cie and many other publications.